19 October 2009

Death in Venice, Jeff in Varanasi

by Geoff Dyer

Text Publishing. Adult Other. Paperback RRP $32.95

Guest Reviewer - Anastasia Gonis

This novel is pure escapism. It is in two parts that are held together by a common thread but appear as separate stories. The first centres on a journalist who hates his job and finds his life intolerable. But he initiates change by dyeing his hair for the first time and allowing himself liberties that he’d never considered before.

His assignment is to cover the Biennale in Venice and secure an interview with ageing beauty, Julia Berman, on her daughter’s new CD album. He’s also pressured to get permission to publish an early provocative drawing of Julia by a now famous and popular artist. This meeting leads to more temptation and awakens sleeping desires.

His desires are propelled further forward by a meeting with the enigmatic Laura, to whom chance is everything. He embarks on a sexual, intensely sensual journey with her as they spend most of their time making love, attending parties and snorting coke, leaving the Biennale imprinted on his life as an unforgettable journey through love and renewal.

The second part finds the journalist sent to India to write a travel piece. In Varanasi he initially begins his exploration by following the masses to the Ganges, watching the many funeral pyres that are a display for the tourists, avoiding the countless beggars that swamp the streets, and viewing the abject poverty and filth that constitute the chaos of daily life.

But his visit evolves. By degrees, he embraces the calm lifestyle, the disowning of material possessions, and the questioning. He is greatly influenced by all he sees and experiences. His travel article becomes an intimate portrait of life and death; of survival. Amidst a smorgasbord of language and images, the journalist exposes India in all its shades through the eyes of someone extremely familiar and accepting of the customs, rituals and religions of this complex land.

The writing is extremely visual, superbly entertaining, energetic and clever, humorous and human. The writer is an observer of human habits, weaknesses and pretentions, all of which he intricately dissects.

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